When essays for sale become contract cheating

By Reeta Chakrabarti
Education correspondent, BBC News

image captionAdverts offer services to write essays and complete assignments for students

A BBC investigation finds an industry where students can pay to have their coursework written for them is becoming a growing problem.

Tucked away in the windows of newsagents across the capital, in amongst the postcards advertising music lessons and childcare, a lesser-known industry is quietly making itself known.

There are cards promoting services offering to write essays and complete assignments for students.

The essays are described as "model" assignments that students can use to guide them in their course of study

But, in private, some of these firms are saying the assignments can be passed off by students as their own work.

And, as an undercover BBC investigation has discovered, it is an industry in which some players are helping students to cheat.

A reporter, posing as a student, spoke to six companies on the phone, asking for a business studies essay and a computer programming assignment for his second year undergraduate course.

'Contract cheating'

When he asked if he could hand in the work provided to his tutor as if it was his own, all the firms clearly said that he could.

This sort of plagiarism is described as "contract cheating" by Professor Robert Clarke from Birmingham City University, who has spent years researching the phenomenon.

Universities are well set up to detect more traditional forms of plagiarism where extracts of someone else's work are used. But a bespoke essay, original but written by someone else, is, according to Robert Clarke, much harder to detect.

Wholesale plagiarism such as this should be of genuine concern to everyone, he says.

"Would you want to be treated by a nurse who's cheated on their assignment? Would you like to go for a job and be pipped to the post by someone who cheated in their degree?"

He says he knows of one medical student who bought an assignment on medical statistics, thereby attempting to deceive both the university and future patients. The student was caught.

Growing business

And it appears to be a growing problem and a lucrative business. Go online and you will find hundreds of essay services available across the world.

A typical price for an essay is £70 for a short piece, but something more substantial costs hundreds of pounds.

image captionProf Clarke says while some of the work was poor, other pieces would score good grades

You pay more for a first class essay than a 2:2; some give you a discount if you bulk buy, others a money back guarantee if you do not pass.

Students have told the BBC of smartly-dressed men standing outside campuses touting for business. This is particularly the case towards the end of term, when the pressure on students is the greatest.

We learned of one student who spent nearly £100 on an essay, which turned out to be a fail.

We approached two of the people we bought assignments from: firstly, Shani Udugama.

Our undercover student asked her twice during the course of their conversation if he could pass off the work he was planning to buy as his own, and she said, "yes".

There was no money back guarantee but a pass was assured.

When we approached Ms Udugama to ask her about this, at first she denied any involvement, and then she refused to answer our questions.

We learned that shortly after our approach, she had left the company.

We also approached Sejal Dalal, of Case Studies London, who similarly told us we could hand in the computer programme assignment provided by him.

He had even told our student to get suggestions for amendments to the work from his tutor so that the company could make those corrections for him.

But when we questioned Mr Dalal, after the phone conversation, he defended himself vigorously.

He stressed that all e-mails from him stated that the assignments were models only and that handing them in would indeed be cheating.

When we asked why then he had said otherwise on the phone, he replied that he must have been "misunderstood."

Poor work

Prof Clarke looked at the essay we bought from Shani Udugama for £70. He judged it to be weak.

The computing assignment from Case Studies London, was "rubbish", he said, despite its £125 price tag.

But a third essay, for which we also paid £70, was, he said, "pretty good" and would have fetched marks equivalent to a 2:1.

There are serious implications for any student found to be buying an essay in this way.

A student can be stripped of their degree or thrown out of university.

This form of cheating is not a crime, although there are some in academic circles who think it should be. And the offence is the student's.

But for every student who is cheating in this way there is a company profiting from them - and making good money out of their deception.

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